These days, it seems like blush gets sidelined as the shy, retiring sister of lip and eye makeup. It's like we fear facial redness so much, we've abandoned the centuries-old tradition of adding a little bit of flush to our cheeks. In truth, interest in complexion and cheek coloring has deep roots, a history both fascinating and fanatical. Here’s a look at some bygone methods used to produce either rosy flush or ghostly pallor in the days before commercial cosmetics (and those pesky health and safety regulations).
Ancient societies relied on naturally occurring vegetable and mineral dyes for blush. In Egypt, ground ochre was rubbed on cheeks and lips, accentuating ubiquitous kohl-lined eyes. There is evidence of early Greeks using the juice of crushed mulberries to lightly stain their cheeks, and applying Alkanet root as a simple kind of stick rouge. Aristocratic Romans incorporated skin-whitening lead compounds into their grooming rituals, and often topped it with red vermilion (a powdered form of the mineral cinnabar) for cheek color. Both, however, were very toxic.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, cosmetics were less favored. Pale skin was seen as a signifier of wealth; so while peasants and serfs got tan languishing in the fields, their overlords (and ladies) would shutter themselves away and undergo bloodletting procedures to achieve a perfectly ghoulish glow. This look might be highlighted by a dab or two of cheek tint made from strawberries and water.
In the 15th century, firebrand countess and eventual city-state ruler Caterina Sforza took time from her busy lording schedule to write a book of DIY beauty secrets called Experimenti. Her recipes included one “to make the hands and face white' (apply the water strained from boiled nettles to neck and face), and a rouge solution made from mixing red sandalwood with aqua vita (ethanol) that would last for eight days once on the cheeks. Less altruistic (or perhaps more, depending on your point of view) was her countrywoman Giulia Tofana, who in mid-17th century Palermo peddled a “complexion aid,” called Aqua Tofana, specifically to women in miserable arranged marriages. The product was actually a poison in disguise—and some estimates suggest that over 600 men died from unwittingly ingesting it. Tofana was eventually discovered and executed for her guerilla-style contributions to early women’s liberation.
Elizabeth I of England, for her part, did a great deal to further the popularity of face paint during her reign. Unfortunately, methods and materials of the time were unsavory at best, deadly at worst (sensing a pattern yet?). Liberally applied ceruse (a concoction of lead paint and vinegar) created a mask on the wearer that was seldom washed off. Egg whites would be used to finish each successive surface, while the skin buried beneath would turn grey from oxygen deprivation. The spread of diseases such as smallpox in 17th and 18th century Europe also stoked reliance on such practices; unsightly scars and blemishes were covered over by this distinctive spackle. A similar aesthetic was upheld in the 18th century courts of France, by both men and women, until the French Revolution and its decisive guillotine gave the final word on upper-class heads and their chosen fashions.
Taking note, Georgian blue bloods championed a more understated, romantic appearance. They abandoned the über-pale, stylized look in favor of the bright cheeks of a milkmaid—all rosy glow and good health. This revived interests in natural flushes, whether achieved by taking a turn about the room or subtly applying organic color to the face. The 1825 British guide, The Art of Beauty(subtitle: The Best Methods of Improving and Preserving The Shape, Carriage, and Complexion), recommended that rouge be “rendered extremely innocently,” and provided a glossary of preferred ingredients that included safflower, red sandalwood, Brazil wood, and carmine. Carmine had been introduced to Europe after Spanish conquest of the Americas. The dye, harvested from an insect called the cochineal, was a deep red that could be safely used on the skin, and continues to be an ingredient in many products today. The Art of Beauty also lists a number of intriguingly named rouges available for purchase at the time, suggesting an already globalized market: Portuguese dishes, Spanish wool and Spanish papers, and the Chinese box of colors.
A strange trend running counter to the pastoral romantic style in the 19th century was that of the faux TB victim. Cheeks were still made flush, but done so more to resemble the glow brought on by a terminal fever, while skin was kept pale and powdered, and pupils were sometimes dilated with dangerous belladonna.
Declaring cosmetics indecent by public decree in the 19th century, Queen Victoria ushered in a new era of public disapproval and clandestine application as heavy makeup was seen as the domain of prostitutes and actors. But in private, of course, young women bit their lips, pinched their cheeks, and patted beet juice stains sparingly onto their faces before meeting suitors. There was no need to despair the new austerity for long though, because by the start of the 20th century French companies across the channel, such as Bourjois and Guerlain, were already laying the foundation for a wholesale beauty market that neither trends nor tyrants have been able to put a stop to since.
Photographed by Ben Jurgensen.